Fort Abercrombie's Historical Significance


Historical and Archaeological Background

The Kodiak Archipelago has been home to the Alutiiq people for at least 7500 years. A maritime people, Alutiiqs share a cultural, linguistic and biological heritage with neighboring Eskimo and Aleut peoples. On Kodiak, archaeological work continues to reveal the long and complex history of the Alutiiq and the development of their societies.

Archaeologists break the prehistory of the Kodiak region into three traditions, each representing a distinct way of life. The Ocean Bay Tradition (7500 to 4000 BP) is characterized by a mobile hunting and gathering lifestyle; the Kachemak Tradition (4000 to 1000 BP) by settled village life and an increased emphasis on fishing, and the Koniag Tradition (1000 BP to AD 1784) by ranked societies with hereditary chiefs who maintained power through trade, warfare, and ceremony.

In 1988 archaeologists excavated the Monashka Bay site, a prehistoric settlement immediately adjacent to the park (on the City's Ram Site property), discovering occupations from both the Kachemak and Koniag Traditions. Important finds from this excavation included the remains of semi-subterranean structures, materials indicative of long distance trade (e.g., copper and coal), and a multitude of pebbles etched with images of people in ceremonial garb.

Historical Themes and Resources

In 1784 Russians traders established their first permanent settlement in America at Three Saints Bay, only 100 miles southeast of the park. In 1792 the headquarters of the Russian American Company moved to St. Paul, now Kodiak Harbor, just a few miles from the park. By 1852, the park area was identified on Russian charts as 'Mys Melnichnoy,' or Mill Cape. This title reflects the presence of a Russian flourmill at the head of Mill Bay to the southwest. The point was previously labeled Popof Cape, perhaps in honor of Vasili and Ivan Popof, pioneer fur traders and hunters in Alaska from 1762 to 1763.

After the 1867 transfer of Alaska from a Russian to an American administration, Miller Point continued as a designation for the area, apparently a translation from the Russian. This history indicates the possibility for Russian era sites in the park, another type of archaeological resource.

World War II History

Post-Russian era military history on Kodiak started in 1898 with the establishment of Fort Kodiak in the current city area. The U.S. Navy established a radio facility on Woody Island in 1911. The onset of World War II in the late 1930's precipitated a rapid buildup of coastal defenses. Alaska was deemed strategic from its location on the Great Circle Route from the Orient both from a commercial and military perspective.

Chosen for its location along this route, the US Navy began construction of the Kodiak Navy Base (at the current US Coast Guard base location) in 1939. Kodiak served as Alaska Defense Command for the entire Alaska campaign from October 1942 through March 1943.

In April of 1941, Battery C of the 250th Coast Artillery Regiment, a California National Guard unit, was deployed to Kodiak. The 250th brought its three mobile 155-mm guns on the U.S. Army transport, the St. Mihiel. By the end of October, the 250th had established headquarters at the Kodiak Navy Base, later formally named Fort Greely (named for the arctic explorer, Major General Adolphus W. Greely) in September 1941. The three guns were emplaced at Spruce Cape, Woody Island and Buskin Beach.

In June 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an Executive Order, which withdrew 780 acres of private and public land in the vicinity of Miller Point for a military reservation. By November, an observation post at Miller Point was manned by Battery A of the 250th. The post was later named Fort Abercrombie for Lt. Col. William R. Abercrombie. As a company grade officer, Abercrombie played a major role in U.S. Army explorations in interior areas of Alaska during the late 19th century. However, Abercrombie was never actually present in Kodiak.

Battery B was deployed at Spruce Cape. Battery C was deployed to Long Island (later named Ft. Tidball, equipped with two six-inch guns). Battalion Headquarters were located at Buskin Hill, with support barracks where the present day USCG housing is located at Nemetz Park. Battery D was deployed to Cape Chiniak (later named Fort J. H. Smith). All the batteries received the official "Fort" names on April 29, 1943.

Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor of December 7, 1941, Ft. Abercrombie was manned only during day hours. During the weeks after Pearl Harbor, all of the regiment's batteries did daily battery practice, and Abercrombie was manned continuously to defend the Naval Air Station, Kodiak, by denying entrance to hostile sea forces. Ultimately there were 150-200 men and about 25 Quonset huts and tents at Abercrombie. All of the Kodiak installations together reached a top strength of more than 11,000 men.

An account of garrison duty on Kodiak during this period indicates that life was relatively pleasant, with troops taking advantage of hunting and fishing opportunities. After Pearl Harbor was attacked however, it seemed an attack on Kodiak was imminent, and both residents and troops were on high alert. Civilian dependents were evacuated December 17, and the atmosphere was kept tense by reports such as that on May 5, 1942, of aircraft detected 125-140 miles south.

Gun emplacements at Miller Point seem to have been low on the list of defense priorities. Not until May 1942, did Navy contractors begin a survey of the area for suitable gun mount positions. Following Japanese attacks on Attu, Kiska and Unalaska in the western Aleutians, detailed plans were written for installation of two 8-inch guns at Miller Point. The plans provided for observation posts on Kizhuyak Point to the northwest and Mount Herman on Spruce Island to complement the gun emplacement. A top-secret radar unit was to be established at Piedmont Point just southwest of Miller Point. They also provided two 60-inch mobile seacoast searchlights with power plants, to be placed in the Miller Point area and additional lights at Kizhuyak Point and Mount Herman.

The installation was given the mission of denying Narrow Strait and Kizhuyak Bay to hostile sea forces with their two artillery pieces. Available records of what happened at Miller Point after approval of fortification plans are sketchy. In May 1944, the 250th Coastal Artillery Regiment was broken up and redesignated. Events between May 1944 and the end of the war remain obscure. A field survey of the park during the spring of 1971 cataloged the location and traced each of the structures shown on an "as-built" map of 1943.

Follow-up research has identified the function of most structures (or remnants). The Fort was divided into 2 separate components: Miller Point and Piedmont Point. Miller Point apparently was divided into three zones: operations, personnel support and logistical support. In the operations zone, the two eight-inch guns and the Ready Ammunitions Bunker were the most impressive structures. In a desperate attempt to rapidly deploy heavy armament along the west coast of the US, various types of artillery were brought out of moth-ball status from around the country.

The eight-inch Mark VI guns at Abercrombie were designed as World War I battleship guns, and constructed around 1900. Photos show Navy Seabees installing the guns at Miller Point in 1943. The Army made special shore mounts to allow the guns to rotate all the way around (180 degrees). With a total weight of 155,000 pounds (77.5 tons), the guns could fire 240-pound exploding projectiles a distance of 35,365 yards (20 miles).

They were fired frequently for practice, but never fired at an enemy. No photos are known to exist of the guns after construction. An unidentified structure just to the south of the Ready Ammunitions Bunker may have been a storage area for battle allowance ammunition. To the west (in the current campground area), the battery commander's station shared a 50-foot wooden tower with a battery observation post. Less than 100 yards due west of this tower, a searchlight and its own generator was housed in a concrete shelter. Double doors allowed the 60-inch light to extend easily out from the shelter on grooved tracks. To the northeast is a small concrete bunker designated as Distant Electrical Control (DEC) on some plans, and Harbor Observation Post on others, and likely employed a binocular-like optic used to focus the searchlights on their targets.

A surviving inventory shows that an automatic 40-mm cannon, two .30-caliber and two .50-caliber machine guns were in the Fort Abercrombie armory. Warehouse and storage buildings seem to have been concentrated at the southern end of the garrison. The war reserve magazine was at the outermost point. Personnel support facilities lay between the operations and supply zones, and were the most numerous.

Evidence of 25 Quonset huts or squad tents used as quarters, a mess hall, infirmary, recreation hall, and two buildings containing latrines and showers were used. The spotting and plotting room (bunker), a generator house, and an "elephant shelter" housing an automatic weapons magazine, were also in this area. Another building, identified as "barracks" on the 1943 map, is much smaller than other quarters and may have been used by personnel on duty at the adjacent battery commander's station.

Piedmont Point, 1/2 -mile southeast of the 8-inch gun positions, housed another tactical searchlight, a second DEC or observation post, an SCR-296 radar tower, and ancillary personnel facilities. Since radar was a very new technology at this time, its deployment was likely extremely guarded information. At this time, both the DEC and searchlight bunker remain in fair condition. The foundation is all that remains of the radar tower, along with several other foundation remains.

A review of all the available evidence shows that Fort Abercrombie probably was actively manned between the summer of 1942 and spring of 1944. At its peak, military activity at Abercrombie may have required between 150 and 200 men. All the Kodiak installations together reached a top strength of more than 11,000 men. In December 1944, most Kodiak installations were placed in caretaker status.

To prevent the possibility of the guns falling into hostile hands, demolitions experts blew up the gun batteries by packing them with explosives. According to veteran Heavy Artillery Mechanic, George W. Reynolds "If my memory is correct, it seems to me that they destroyed the eight inch guns at Miller Point sometime just before Thanksgiving, 1948." Fragments were blown some distance and the barrels ended up over the cliffs.

Restoration efforts in the early 1980's salvaged the barrels and placed them on display next to the remains of their mounting carriages. In the operations zone, the ready ammunition bunker has been restored and now houses the Kodiak Military History Museum. The DEC and the searchlight bunker are also substantially intact. In the personnel support zone, the plotting and spotting room, two generator bunkers and one shower and laundry building are the only significant structures remaining, while the war reserve magazine survives from the warehouse and storage area.

Recent History

After the Fort was abandoned by the military, it had a sordid history of use by residents, mainly as transient housing and became its own "community". Camps were set up, both inside and outside of the bunkers. It is rumored that it even had its own mayor and jail (in one of the bunkers). Much of the fort infrastructure was either destroyed or recycled into the community during this time. Fill material, a valuable commodity on the island, was quickly removed from the bunker revetments for use elsewhere in the community.

The Miller Point Ready Ammunitions Bunker became a heavily used gathering area for parties and suffered from heavy graffiti. The two gun mounts were filled with broken glass and garbage, vehicles were abandoned, burned, and even pushed over the cliffs.

On January 30 1969, the park was officially established for its outstanding historical resources. The park was then listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. The mere establishment of the park however, did not provide any staffing, and it was only after the urging of the local Kodiak government to deal with the problematic tenants that temporary employees were dispatched to the park in the late-1970's to clean it up.

In 1980, 25 residents were evicted from the park and a new era of public use of the area began. Full-time staff was assigned to the park a short time later. After years of working out of rented office space, trailers, and even the maintenance truck, an office and residence was finally constructed at its present site in 1981. Much of the current park infrastructure was built in the mid 1980's.

The park was included as part of the Kodiak Naval Operating Base and Forts Greely and Abercrombie National Historic Landmark designation in 1985. A grant secured in the early 1990's provided the funding to waterproof and re-bury the Miller Point Ready Ammunitions Bunker as it was during the war. The interior was sandblasted, repainted to its original colors, and a heating system installed to allow the water-saturated building to dry. In 2000, it became the home of the present day Kodiak Military History Museum, operated by a volunteer non-profit group.